Pets & Animals

'My Old Dog': A paw-some adventure leads to heartwarming new book by TODAY writer

Check it out, dog lovers! TODAY.com just had a puppy — er, baby!

OK. I probably should explain that. (Although a picture does say a thousand words, no?)

Courtesy of Laura T. Coffey

Since 2008, I’ve written and edited hundreds of stories for TODAY.com. Many of those stories have been serious. Many have been funny. And many — many — have been about dogs.

I’ve written about a flat puppy who regained her mobility and a puppy rescued from abuse who helped a young boy with autism. I’ve written about iconic dogs, floating dogs, sleeping dogs, military dogs, guide dogs, therapy dogs, cleaned-up dogs and hero dogs. And one day, back in the summer of 2013, I wrote a story about senior dogs being overlooked in animal shelters.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that story would change my life and lead to the creation of “My Old Dog: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts,” the new book you just saw me cradling in my son’s old baby carrier.

New World Library

The story ran with the headline “‘No dog should die alone’: Photographer promotes senior pet adoption.” It highlighted the efforts of an animal photographer and shelter volunteer named Lori Fusaro.

“All I really care about is changing the perception of older dogs,” Fusaro told me at the time. “They might be slower and they might sleep a little more, but all the old dogs I’ve met in this past year like to play with their toys and chew on their bones. They still have that zest, that joy for living.

“Every dog is important. Every dog deserves a home. I finally just boiled it down to love. That’s the most important thing.”

Photo by Rita Earl
Photographer Lori Fusaro is pictured with her dogs Sunny, adopted from a shelter at age 16, and Gabby.

I liked this Fusaro woman, and I liked what she said when we spoke. So, I went ahead and wrote a feature story about her and her senior-dog photography project.

Photo copyright Lori Fusaro / "My Old Dog"
Fiona, a senior dog featured in the new book "My Old Dog," played a role in Lori Fusaro's original senior-dog photography project.

KABOOM: The story blew up all over the world. NBC Nightly News, the Associated Press and dozens of newspapers, blogs and local television stations picked it up or reported about it. The deluge of attention led to a senior-dog art project, a senior-dog middle school project, a senior-dog museum exhibit — and one day, a phone call from a literary agent wondering whether Fusaro and I might want to team up and do a book together.

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Older dogs get second chance thanks to photographer

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Before we knew it, I was flying from my home in Seattle and Fusaro from her home in Los Angeles to New York, where we met in person for the first time. We hugged, rented a car and immediately departed on an eight-day road trip together.

Our mission on that first trip, and on all the other trips that followed: To eyewitness and document success stories of shelter dogs who managed to find homes in their later years. We wanted every story to be completely different (and they were!) but a common theme emerged:

The people out there helping older animals who have run out of options are AWESOME. They care about the underdog (so to speak). They adopt senior dogs without expecting anything in return, and then they get the love of mellow, loyal pals who are relieved to feel safe and welcome (and, as a bonus, are usually already house-trained).

Photo copyright Lori Fusaro / "My Old Dog"
How we got the photo: "My Old Dog" author Laura T. Coffey hid in the mud behind David Rosenfelt's dog Boomer and scratched her back as photographer Lori Fusaro struggled to get a good shot on a rainy day in Maine.

In addition to falling in love with the amazing people and dogs we kept meeting, we also kept marveling at the community that rallied around “My Old Dog.” Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Neko Case — an ardent animal lover — jumped at the opportunity to provide the book’s foreword. Veterinarian, author and TV personality Marty Becker wanted to write the afterword.

Photo copyright Lori Fusaro / "My Old Dog"
Laura Coffey with two old friends, Manny, left, and Frida.

And George Clooney — yes, THAT George Clooney! — agreed to participate in the book as well. Lori and I got to go to the actor and filmmaker’s house in L.A. and hang out with his friendly, food-obsessed cocker spaniel, Einstein. Our chapter about Clooney’s adoption of Einstein includes hilarious details that have never been reported anywhere — and how cool was it of Clooney to a) adopt an older rescue dog with health issues and b) let us come over at all?

Courtesy of Laura T. Coffey
Photographer Lori Fusaro and author Laura T. Coffey play with Einstein the dog at George Clooney's house.

The miracles didn’t end there. Lori and I will never forget the morning we spent at the 9/11 Memorial with Denise Corliss and her golden retriever, Bretagne, the last known surviving search dog who worked the pile at Ground Zero. It was Corliss’ and Bretagne’s first time back to that spot since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and it wasn’t easy. NBC News legend Tom Brokaw was there with us that day, and we felt honored to be capturing such an important part of history in our book.

Photo by Laura T. Coffey
Lori Fusaro photographs Bretagne for the "My Old Dog" book with Denise Corliss’ help at the 9/11 Memorial in September 2014.

It also was gratifying to spend time with so many different people from every age and income level who saw their lives improve after they welcomed senior dogs into their homes: a police officer, a schoolteacher, a machinist, a novelist, a photographer, a veteran with PTSD, a widow, nursing home residents, elderly nuns and many others. Some went out of their way to take in working dogs who needed safe, comfortable retirements when they aged out of their vocations.

These stories changed my life for the better and helped me become a more grateful person. And speaking of gratitude, I’m so grateful that I learned how to find and write stories like these at TODAY.com. That experience led to something so life-changing for me that it really did merit its own birth announcement!

See a photo gallery from 'My Old Dog' on TODAY's Facebook page

I sure hope you like “My Old Dog,” and I also hope it might inspire you to consider adopting or fostering a shelter pet over the age of 6 or 7. After months of firsthand observation in the field, I can say this with confidence: It’s likely to be one of the best things you’ve ever done.

The book “My Old Dog: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts,” written by Laura T. Coffey and with photographs by Lori Fusaro, includes a comprehensive resource guide and useful information to help people assist senior shelter animals even if they are not in a position to adopt right now. To learn more, visit MyOldDogBook.com or connect with the "My Old Dog" community on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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